Congressional rivals split mostly along party lines in debate

Cal Poly president Jeffrey Armstrong, right, introduces the 24th District congressional candidates (from left) Justin Fareed, William Ostrander, John Uebersax, Katcho Achadjian, Salud Carbajal, Steve Isakson, Matt Kokkonen, Helene Schneider and Jeff Oshins at the start of the debate at Cal Poly Thursday.
Cal Poly president Jeffrey Armstrong, right, introduces the 24th District congressional candidates (from left) Justin Fareed, William Ostrander, John Uebersax, Katcho Achadjian, Salud Carbajal, Steve Isakson, Matt Kokkonen, Helene Schneider and Jeff Oshins at the start of the debate at Cal Poly Thursday. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Most of the nine candidates for the 24th District congressional seat found common ground on the issue of higher education and student debt during their first debate this week. But that was largely the end of the road for bipartisanship.

The other four questions they fielded — on the economy, sustainability and the environment, health care, and political and social polarization — split mostly along party lines in the debate among four Democrats, three Republicans and two independents on the stage at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre on Thursday night.

In the often colorful debate, moderated by KCBX-FM’s news director Randol White, the candidates differentiated themselves from their rivals on nearly every issue.

Each is seeking to succeed Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, who has announced she intends to retire at the end of her term, kicking off what could become one of the most-contested congressional races in the state. The 24th District, which sprawls across all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, as well as a wedge of Ventura County, is closely divided in voter registration, with Democrats at 37 percent, Republicans at 34 percent and an unpredictable 23 percent of voters with no party preference.

So far, the candidates are Republicans Katcho Achadjian, Justin Fareed and Matt Kokkonen; Democrats Salud Carbajal, Jeff Oshins, William Ostrander and Helene Schneider; and independents Steve Isakson and John Uebersax.

Posing the first question, White asked candidates to define the greatest challenges facing higher education and the role of the federal government in meeting those challenges. Overwhelmingly, the candidates said student debt was a massive problem that ripples across the entire U.S. economy.

Oshins, a retired contractor who has made student debt his top issue, said the high cost of education has created a “generation of indentured servants” who postpone their contributions to society because they can’t earn a living while paying off student loans.”

To combat this, most candidates agreed that some form of restructuring or refinancing student debt was needed, along with incentives for families to invest in their loved ones’ higher education.

“It’s ridiculous you can refinance your mortgage but you can’t refinance your (student) debt,” said Carbajal, a third-term Santa Barbara County supervisor. He added — though it was not met with enthusiasm from the Republican candidates — that he supports the expansion of federal financial aid such as Pell grants.

Achadjian, the 35th District assemblyman and former San Luis Obispo County supervisor, suggested incentivizing financial institutions to provide no-interest student loans.

Fareed, 27, also mentioned the promotion of 529 savings plans, state or institution-sponsored investment plans that assist in saving for tuition and other education costs.

Schneider, the mayor of Santa Barbara who previously worked for more than a decade with Planned Parenthood of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, broadened the student debt issue to discuss campus safey.

“We need to stop the epidemic of sexual assaults and rape,” Schneider said, promoting measures such as last year’s SB 967, known commonly as the “Yes Means Yes” law, that redefined sexual consent in California.

Moving on to a question on how to stimulate economic growth in the district, Fareed called for abolishing regulations that stymie economic growth. “We need to get public bureaucrats out of the way,” he said.

The statement prompted the first off-script exchange of the night, with San Luis Obispo rancher and campaign finance reform candidate Ostrander replying: “That is the Republican playbook we’ve heard the last 35 years, and it hasn’t worked very well, has it?”

Achadjian pointed to audience members, many of them Cal Poly students, as the future of the economy.

Kokkonen, a San Luis Obispo financial planner, took that a step further, saying vocational training should be promoted as an alternative to college and proposed doing away with income tax for people 25 years old and younger.

Carbajal called for raising the federal minimum wage and ending investments in “frivolous wars.” Schneider proposed federal investments in renewable energy, equal pay legislation, and promoting paid family leave and sick time.

“No one should work a full-time job and still fall into poverty,” Schneider said.

Uebersax, a self-employed statistician, tried unsuccessfully to build a consensus among the candidates, declaring that the pursuit of happiness should not equate to a pursuit of money.

Asked about environmentalism and federal policies for sustainable water use, Achadjian brought up his tenure on the California Coastal Commission and his support for desalination plants.

Most candidates agreed that desalination represented one possible strategy for expanding water supplies.

Carbajal and Schneider said the federal government should step in to provide more funding to state and local governments for conservation, storage and aquifer recharging efforts.

That idea was rejected by the Republicans, with Fareed again suggesting the end of regulations that he said hinders development of desalination plants and other alternative technologies.

Ostrander, the rancher, said reform was needed in the agricultural industry and its overuse of scarce water.

“Eighty-five percent of all water use goes to agriculture,” he said, adding that the industry needs to embrace dry farming. “We continue to till up the soil and actually repel more water than we can (store in aquifers).” Ostrander also chastised the other candidates for not mentioning global warming.

On the issue of social and political polarization, two of the Republicans said the political establishment has let the American people down. Fareed said it was time to “clean house” in a dysfunctional Congress. Achadjian agreed, suggesting legislators shouldn’t be paid unless they can compromise on issues such as passing a budget on time.

“It’s obvious that Congress forgot who elected them and sent them to Washington,” Achadjian said.

Most of the candidates pledged to work with those across the political aisle. Schneider said lawmakers also need to engage the disenfranchised who are economically and politically marginalized in society.

“We need to listen to people across the country when people are saying their voices aren’t being heard,” Schneider said, pointing specifically to the Black Lives Matter activist movement formed last year to protest police brutality incidents that have disproportionately affected ethnic minorities.

Ostrander said he believes society is actually not as polarized as the question suggested, but that big money in the political process promotes extremism.

Both independent candidates, Uebersax and Isakson, said the 24th District needs someone without major party affiliation to help ease the gridlock. The irony of the discussion wasn’t lost in the theater when the next question — posed by an audience member — asked the candidates’ opinions on the Affordable Care Act and no one reached across party lines.

Republicans across the board responded that the federal government has no place requiring health insurance.

“The American people were told that the (ACA) would save everybody (money). ... Those were boldfaced lies, not true,” Kokkonen answered. “When the government controls health care, they control you.”

“I don’t believe it’s the job of the federal government to tell me what kind of insurance I should have,” Achadjian said.

“This policy is like a Rubik’s Cube,” Fareed said.

The Democrats and independents, on the other hand, said they supported the law and cited the benefits it’s held for millions of Americans, although work remains to be done to improve the ACA.

More emphasis needs to be placed on mental health and breaking the stranglehold that pharmaceutical companies have on the cost of health care, they said.